From rent strikes to free-speech walkouts – how did Durham University become a frontline of the UK’s culture wars? | Universities

It was 3 December 2021, and South College, Durham University, was having its Christmas formal. “Formals happen every week here,” says Miatta Pemberton (not her real name), who is in her second year at the college. “It’s a longstanding Durham thing. You put on a gown that cost £60, or, if you’re like me, you buy it off eBay for £20.” For a special occasion, it would be normal to have a speaker and announce them in advance. By 5pm, the speaker hadn’t been announced, and Pemberton found out who it was by chance from the college’s vice-principal, Lee Worden. She couldn’t immediately place the person; she just knew she’d heard the name “for all the wrong reasons”.

About 15 to 20 students more familiar with Rod Liddle’s work in the Spectator and the Sunday Times (sample headline on one of his columns from 2018: “I’m identifying as a young, black, trans chihuahua”), walked out before he’d started speaking. As they did so, Tim Luckhurst, the college principal who had invited Liddle, shouted: “At South College, we value freedom of speech,” and “Pathetic!”. So the mood wasn’t great, but there were still upwards of 180 students in the hall as Liddle stood up to speak. He began by saying he was disappointed not to see any sex workers there, a reference to a controversy from the previous month, when the students’ union was attacked for offering safety training to students involved in sex work. The story was picked up by the tabloid press, which mobilised the opinion wing of the Daily Mail, which then brought in the then further education minister, Michelle Donelan, who accused the union of “legitimising a dangerous industry which thrives on the exploitation of women”. If you were a culture-war correspondent looking for the frontline, you’d go to Durham: it is where things kick off.

A sign in a window at Durham university saying ‘Proud to be trans’, and a trans flag hanging out of the window
Students express their views. All photographs: Gary Calton/The Guardian

Liddle continued his speech: “A person with an X and a Y chromosome, that has a long, dangling penis, is scientifically a man, and that is pretty much, scientifically, the end of the story.” “Which is objectively a weird thing to hear when you’re trying to eat,” says Pemberton. At this point a further 20 or so students walked out and missed the bit about colonialism not being “remotely the major cause of Africa’s problems”, and Liddle’s contention that structural racism has nothing to do with educational underachievement among British people of Caribbean descent. Speaking to me over the phone from his home in the Pennines, Liddle says his point was: “We’ve got not to be scared of other people’s opinions, no matter what they are. There are things I believe in, which you almost certainly won’t. We think the same thing – transgender people have a right to dignity and respect. We just disagree on whether they’re biologically a man.”

Luckhurst and Liddle have a friendship dating from the mid-80s, when they worked in adjoining rooms on the shadow cabinet corridor in Westminster, writing speeches for Labour MPs. “The left has always been our enemy,” says Liddle; and it’s true that long before “wokeness” existed, before cancellation was a culture, even before its ancestor “political correctness” was born, the party of the left has been at war over who was the right kind of left. Both men then worked for Radio 4’s Today programme, Luckhurst going on to become editor of news programmes at BBC Scotland, and later, briefly, editor of the Scotsman. When he became an academic in 2007, he had an august CV in both print and broadcast media, and quite a wonky, old-school passion for news values. Free-speech provocations don’t seem to be his primary interest, though his and Liddle’s self-fashioning as thorns in the side of pearl-clutching liberals is at the centre of their friendship.

The two men differed on something, though: Liddle had no problem with students walking out, nor with the fact that the ones who remained sat in silence when he finished. “Apparently they’re all meant to stand at the end, and they didn’t. I thought, frankly, who gives a fuck?” By contrast, Luckhurst was upset that they hadn’t listened respectfully. After the dinner, scenes ensued, culminating in Luckhurst telling a student (off-camera) that they shouldn’t be at university, and his wife, Dorothy, shouting: “Arse, arse, arse, arse, arse – you’re not allowed to say ‘arse’, apparently,” and asking students what they were so frightened of.

It was all a bit Animal Farm – looking from face to face, trying to recall which ones are the stoics and which the snowflakes. Which ones are the grownups and which the kids? Who’s trying to cancel who? And why is it such catnip to the rightwing press?

The South College debacle, and the sex worker training “scandal” before it, along with the many headlines and thinkpieces they generated, were just a typical season in Durham’s culture-war calendar. From the university’s Bullingdon-style social clubs, the rightwing provocations are reliably eyebrow-raising: in 2017, the Trevelyan rugby club staged a “Thatcher versus the miners” pub crawl, while five years earlier, St Cuthbert’s rugby club had an event where guests dressed as Jimmy Savile. In 2021 a Durham student posted a clip of a white man blacked up to dress as Kanye West (though an investigation found that he wasn’t a student at the university). Periodically, there’ll be a leak of WhatsApp or Facebook messages containing sometimes hair-raising misogyny (it was alleged that one informal group launched a competition in 2020 to see who could “fuck the poorest fresher”) or enough outright neo-nazism to see established groups – the Durham University Conservative Association (DUCA), along with its Free Market Association (DUFMA) – closed down, as they were in 2020.

Niall Hignett, a member of the Labour Club and the Working-Class Students’ Association, photographed on campus
‘If you want anybody to talk to the issues that you care about, you have to rile them up,” says Labour Club member Niall Hignett. ‘Loads of rich kids just don’t get it.’

On the left, the actions are those you’d recognise from any undergraduate arena: climate marches, usually small in scale; racial awareness training; pressure to decolonise the curriculum. In the case of the sex worker training, “loads of unis have it”, says Niall Hignett, a leftwing campaigner at South College. “Students are doing it because of their financial situation. Giving them support and advice wasn’t encouraging it – it was trying to make sure they were safe.” In the topsy-turvy world with which we should now probably be familiar, it’s this rather muted leftwing activism that generates most of the “wither intellectual freedom?” debate in the Spectator and among Conservative MPs and ministers; the Daily Mail will cover absolutely anything, left or right, so long as it happens in Durham. The academic William Davies, at Goldsmiths, has noted that this fascination stems from perhaps the fundamental battle of the culture wars: who has the right to narrate British identity – newspapers or universities?

Durham University finds the coverage frustrating, and says it doesn’t reflect the campus experience at all. Professors and post-grads describe an atmosphere very like the general student population: broadly progressive in stance. One member of the Durham People of Colour Association says, tellingly, that when they have been subject to abuse, it’s been keyboard warriors coming at them “because of the Daily Mail misquoting things, or misrepresenting us in biased ways”. But how does a university become a hotbed for these extreme political schisms? Is it all a media confection and, if it isn’t, why does anyone go there?

As soon as I step off the train for the first time, in April, I am hit by that very distinctive atmosphere of a place that can seem entirely its university – from the demographic (everyone seems to be 18 or 45), to the town planning, which drives you towards the colleges, to the lack of regular retail outlets and proliferation of tea shops. It even smells like students. Josh Freestone, 19, in his second year studying philosophy and politics, is in the Durham University Labour Club, and describes both his and its politics as to the “left of the Labour party – Corbynite”. The Liddle event distilled for him a sense of disillusionment: “I very much believe the students are the beating heart of the university, but there’s been very little attempt to centre us.”

The university is informally divided into Hill (10 colleges outside the dead centre, either side of Elvet Hill, mostly built since the 1960s – South College was built in 2020); and Bailey (five colleges clustered around the cathedral, built in the 1800s or very early 1900s).

Josh Freestone sitting at a desk in front of large image of a modern building
Josh Freestone describes his and the Labour Club’s politics as Corbynite

The Bailey area is overwhelmed by signs saying “private”. Stand still for one second and some officious retiree will try to give you directions – one makes me wait while she tells a tourist about the cathedral, and I have to listen to her yawing on about St Cuthbert, when I never asked for directions in the first place. When you’re used to an urban environment, in which the baseline assumption is that space is public unless it’s somebody’s house, it’s hard to overstate how irritating this is, but it also must feel quite containing if you’re from a boarding school. The Hill area has nothing but colleges. Max Kendix, now 20 and in his final year, is the ex-editor of the student newspaper Palatinate, and at University College, known as “Castle”. He’s skinny, droll, serious-minded, incredibly nice: I’d first met him in the holidays in London, where he’s from. He says: “I lived on the main street in Bailey in my first year, and I’d be woken every Friday night by a crowd of people, a huge crowd, running down from the Hill shouting, ‘If you live on the Bailey you’re a cunt.’ But the irony is that we wouldn’t do the same. We’d never go to the Hill. There’s nothing there.” Apart from the freestyling tour guides, there’s very little sense of town versus gown, because there’s almost nothing in either the centre or the Hill that isn’t gown-related.

The university as a whole has the highest proportion of privately educated students in the country, at nearly 40%, and the Bailey colleges, particularly Hatfield, have the most intense concentration of students from a small clutch of boarding schools. Sophie Corcoran, a Durham student and a maverick rightwinger with an already significant profile on GB News and talkRadio (I speak to her over the phone as she is still at home in Thurrock), says: “A lot of people who don’t necessarily know each other from school, know of one another from school.” Corcoran is extremely opinionated on social media (anti-immigrant, anti-benefit-claimant, anti-trans). A slip recently, where a separate account replied as if they were her, suggests that her online profile may be a group effort – not exactly a sockpuppet account, since she is definitely real; more of a sock chorus. There is no issue on which she cannot summon a callous view, but one-to-one she has a kind of studs-first life force. I wouldn’t be surprised if, one day, she flipped the other way politically, but maybe that’s wishful thinking.

Sophie Corcoran standing on a footbridge wearing a gown
Even maverick rightwinger Sophie Corcoran claims men in the rightwing societies only welcome women if they can sleep with them

Figures like Corcoran are marginal in student politics, as she readily admits: she gained no traction when she stood for election to the students’ union – “I had more chance of winning North Korea than Durham students’ union,” she says blithely – and has no foothold in its rightwing political scene, whose members, she says, “only like women there if they can sleep with them. If you have an opinion, they hate you.” Besides, she says, they’re all on drugs. “If working-class people like us did drugs like they do, we’d be called crackheads. It’s a completely different story with rich people.”

Much more influential than any nebulous cultural atmosphere is the lack of diversity, in the Bailey colleges particularly. Kendix describes one Hatfield tradition: “They were the last college to let women in, and when they were voting on it, the JCR [junior common room, which is the student body in a college] voted against. This was the … 80s. The authorities at the college went ahead with it anyway, and as a form of protest the students started banging their spoons against the tables at the start of formals. That’s now a tradition. Every formal starts with that – the girls do it, too.”

Can you draw a straight line from people banging spoons to mourn the decline of male supremacy to an alleged competition to see who could “fuck the poorest fresher”? It’s hard to say, and I don’t know that the behaviour reflects attitudes that are real; sometimes these Durham scandals feel manufactured as debate points for an insatiable media.

Katie Anne Tobin is a PhD student who became involved in activism around sexual violence when she was an undergraduate at Sussex. Durham is a mixed picture, she says: in the university as a whole, there are figures like Clarissa Humphreys and Graham Towl working tirelessly to root out sexual violence in higher education settings, having authored a Good Practice Guide that’s well respected nationally. Yet Tobin says the collegiate system often thwarts the university’s efforts: “The colleges create their own policy, they execute their own discipline, and they’ve got their own reputations to maintain. I know a lot of people who have been made to feel like feminist killjoys if they’re open about the issues in their college. The whisper networks are insidious.”

PhD student Katie Anne Tobin Durham
PhD student Katie Anne Tobin Durham thinks the collegiate system thwarts the university’s efforts to tackle sexual violence

Plus, the lack of diversity definitely tells in the student experience. In 2020, Lauren White compiled A Report on Northern Student Experience at Durham University, after being relentlessly mocked for having grown up in Gateshead, 15 miles away. The report quotes one student as saying: “In the college dining hall I have been called a ‘dirty northerner’, and a ‘chav’ … A fellow student asked me: ‘Are you going to take the spare food home to feed your family?’”

According to Kendix: “You’re more likely to meet someone from the same London borough as you than you are to meet someone from a different county.” Pemberton says, “You won’t have someone hurling insults at you day to day. But you feel it. You walk into a room thinking: why do I feel so on edge? Oh, I’m the only brown person in a room full of 200 people.”

The university points to its efforts in this area – there’s a programme to support black-heritage students, a number of scholarships available to state school students, particularly in the north-east. In 2010/11, 79.9% of Durham’s student intake was white. In 2020/21, it was 67.6%. Its efforts may have been hampered somewhat by the collegiate structure, since colleges make their own individual decisions about intake and convention.

One English professor, who I’ll call Sanders, says of the Liddle debacle: “This is the sort of thing that makes me unhappy. South College is our newest college. You can build a culture from the ground up, and he [Luckhurst] built a college with a high table and a Latin grace. When we’re not thinking on our feet, we fall into these old habits.” Sanders is speaking to me in their sprawling, book-messy faculty room, a David Lodge-style picture of the idealised academic life. They are in their early 50s, take seriously the decolonisation of the curriculum – “if anyone came out of my classes thinking the moral impact of the British empire was railways, I wouldn’t have done my job” – and only want to be anonymous for professional courtesy reasons, not because they see themselves as a besieged wokey. As for the culture as a whole, Durham does, Sanders says, “have some posh boys who behave really badly. We probably have a higher percentage than the University of Salford, say. Often the picture is not wrong, but it’s very partial.”

Part of this institution’s failure to dramatically improve diversity, Sanders speculates, is risk-aversion due to anxiety about keeping their Russell Group status: they were only admitted in 2012, it’s quite hard to cling on without a medical school, and that went to Newcastle when the two universities separated in 1963. “When I first arrived,” Sanders says, “the rhetoric was: ‘the group of large universities with medical schools who call themselves the Russell Group’. Once we got admitted, it was ‘the elite universities known as the Russell Group’.”

I meet Niall Hignett in the shared kitchen of his student halls at South College; the summer term is just beginning, and the windows across the campus are still studded with Post-it notes, reading “Bin Tim”, “Transphobes are not welcome here Tim”, “Eat the rich” and “Council college”. Hignett is a member of the Labour Club and the Working-Class Students’ Association, and president of Durham Against Rough Sleeping; he is relaxed, very funny, indefatigable. He comes from an estate in Cheshire – “new-build social housing, which is really tacky. So to me this felt like luxury” – and has been a bete noire of the rightwing press due to the protests he organised after that Christmas formal. He finds this amusing – showing me photos the Telegraph took of him, in which they try to make him look like an unsmiling, incredibly large-chinned trade unionist – and very useful.

For Hignett, the “purposefully provocative” culture war stuff is mainly driven by the myopia of privilege. “If you’ve only ever been a public school and been surrounded by people who are like you, you’ve never really experienced enough of the world to know that running around dressed as Jimmy Savile is … it’s not offensive, I don’t even know how to describe it. When you’re on the doorstep of mining communities who were ravaged by Thatcherism, and you’re dressing up as Thatcher – there’s micro-aggression and there’s aggression-aggression.” But he uses these flashpoints to his advantage: when he organised the protests against Liddle’s speech, it was reported by the Daily Mail, as well as the Times and on GB News, with an almost audible eyeball roll (“Now Durham students threaten a rent strike over Rod Liddle”). It was misleading, but it was also true: Hignett had devised, with open consultation, a list of demands, one of which was a rent freeze. Many were about money rather than hate speech or inclusion. This was deliberate and strategic: it is quite hard to mobilise students who are mainly affluent on matters such as establishing a guarantor scheme (if your parents aren’t homeowners, you need to pay a large deposit to guarantee your private rental agreement; basically a tax on not being middle-class).

“If you want anybody to talk to the issues that you care about, you have to rile them up,” Hignett says. “Loads of rich kids just don’t get it, and the ones who aren’t rich are too ashamed to talk about it. But they understand trans rights. With cultural-issue protests, we just get more people.” There were also demands to proscribe hate speech on campus, and set up a hate-speech committee, and those were, Hignett admits, “bait for the rightwing press”; when you’re trying to pressurise an institution, the real battle is to make yourself impossible to ignore.

Max Kendix and Poppy Askham, ex-editors of Durham’s student newspaper, Palatinate, in the newspaper office
Max Kendix and Poppy Askham, ex-editors of Durham’s student newspaper, Palatinate

While Hignett and I are talking, Tim Luckhurst is outside, doing a tour for what look like parents of prospective students. I mean, everything looks desultory in the rain, but there is a sad, slightly shifty atmosphere when I walk past, as Luckhurst describes the amenities and the tour group studiously avert their eyes from all the Post-it notes that want to bin him.

The protests, which ran throughout December 2021 and January 2022, drew an unusual, even unprecedented, number of students. “Durham is a lot less politically engaged than most universities,” says Poppy Askham, another former editor of Palatinate. “If half the things that happen at Durham happened in Manchester, they’d be protesting all the time.” Kendix remembers that the first protest at South College had “over 300 people”. By contrast, “a climate change protest would have maybe 15 people”. While it was reported as fact by the Mail on Sunday that the “silent majority” supported Luckhurst, a student pollster colleague of Kendix’s at Palatinate found that 80% of students wanted him to leave.

But never mind “silent majority” – if there were any students at all on Luckhurst’s side, why were there no counterprotests, no “free speech” demos, no “Leave Liddle Alone” placards? It turns out that when DUCA and DUFMA were effectively disbanded in September 2020, and removed from the Durham students’ union group register, their funding was withdrawn and they were no longer allowed to use the university’s name in their title. It was a decision made by the students’ union, supported by the university. “It was all lumped together with ‘Durham cancelling Tories’,” says Kendix, who covered it for Palatinate. “But it doesn’t fit that narrative at all. We’re talking about neo-nazism, essentially.”

WhatsApp messages between key members of the groups had been leaked, and revealed a cesspit, sorry, “culture” where old-fashioned nazism met new, 4chan-adjacent violent misogyny, Holocaust denial and white replacement theory, to create a conversation too extreme for the student newspaper to print, and actually too extreme, mainly on racist and antisemitic grounds, for the Guardian to print, either. (A sidebar on the resilience, or perceived lack of it, in this generation: Kendix is Jewish, and had to wade through this swill. He laughs out loud when I ask him if he’d requested any pastoral support; life is actually quite tough at the free speech frontier, but students, in the main, are tougher.)

In the investigation that led to DUFMA and DUCA being shut down, one of the students involved was expelled for three years, which was reduced to one year on appeal, and then overturned altogether. The Conservative MP Richard Holden celebrated the exoneration as he addressed a reformed Conservative group, the Durham University Conservative Society, saying: “For too long we’ve seen free speech being eroded at our universities and colleges. I’ll always stand up for academic freedom and against those who want to impose … their unsubstantiated worldview as unquestionable fact.”

The River Wear in Durham, with some people in rowing boats and on the bank

These interventions from Conservatives transform Durham’s rightwing outbursts from attention-seeking pranks into moments of real consequence. Each fresh event is addressed by the government as an issue of free speech, which has become elided with “academic freedom”; as absurd as it sounds, it is now in defence of academe that former minister Michelle Donelan sought to enshrine in law the right of any staff member or visitor to voice “controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves at risk of being adversely affected”. In April 2022, a motion was passed in the Commons to enable the free speech bill to pass over into the next session of parliament. Donelan – yes, the same person who objected to sex-work training – celebrated that, should the bill pass, “universities, including their student unions, will face fines for engaging with or supporting cancel culture”. What this means is that there would be an actual financial penalty for walking out of a speech by Rod Liddle, a notion that even he, I feel sure, would find hilarious.

Since the publication of God and Man at Yale, the seminal 1951 work by US conservative commentator William F Buckley Jr, the right has had the stated intent of “depoliticising” tertiary education. It’s not a realistic goal: you can’t go to any country’s epicentre of thought and reading and expect it not to take a view on politics. But underneath that is a more concrete agenda. Even in the 50s, but in a much more pronounced way now, the two factors predicting progressive leanings are youth, and being educated to degree level. For the right, tertiary education has to be presented as a site of live conflict, a vivid fight between left and right, or the gig’s up.

Tim Luckhurst was temporarily “barred from duties” after Rod Liddle’s speech while an investigation took place, and those findings were kept private. A statement from the acting vice-chancellor and provost, Antony Long, insisted that “the University does not intend, in any way, to exclude any speakers from our campus”. Yet he also said that “no member of our University community should be subjected to transphobia, homophobia, racism, classism and sexism”. The university has a pretty reflexive understanding of the difference between free speech and hate speech, but the battles, amplified on the national stage, picked apart in newspapers and crowbarred into legislation, have blowback. It’s salient that not one woman of colour would use her real name for this piece. Mal Lee, 25, studying for a postgraduate degree in biology, is president of the LGBT+ association and identifies as trans masculine. Lee describes a trans femme friend having projectiles and abuse hurled at her; Alisha (not her real name), 21, is biracial and was with a black friend when they were both chased down the street by men making monkey noises. Lee didn’t report it because “we just expect it”. Alisha didn’t because “to be honest, I’m quite exhausted”. Neither thinks their assailants were other students, just passing bigots, empowered to act by a wider narrative that has made university life in Durham its emblem.

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